Worcester. Civil action commenced in the Superior Court on December 28, 1977. The case was heard by Morse, J. After review was sought in the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court, on its own initiative, ordered direct appellate review.
Hennessey, C.j., Quirico, Kaplan, Wilkins, & Abrams, JJ.
School and School Committee. Public Board. Open Meeting Law. Municipal Corporations, Open meetings, Collective bargaining. Contract, Collective bargaining contract.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Abrams
A grievance hearing conducted by a school committee pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement may be closed to the public as an executive session authorized by G. L. c. 39, § 23B. [73-74]
The plaintiffs, three registered voters of the town of Southbridge, challenge the action of the defendant school committee of Southbridge (school committee) in conducting a grievance hearing in closed session as a violation of the open meeting law, G. L. c. 39, §§ 23A-23C. *fn1
The school committee conducted a regularly scheduled meeting on December 21, 1976. The meeting was completed and adjourned. The chairperson *fn2 of the school committee then announced that the committee would take up the matter of a teacher's grievance relating to the denial of the teacher's request for a sabbatical leave. *fn3 The grievance was not on the agenda for the regular meeting.
A closed hearing was held to consider the teacher's claim; the teacher had requested and the collective bargaining agreement with the Southbridge Education Association required that the grievance be considered in closed session. *fn4 A citizen attempted to sit in and listen to the grievance hearing; he was forcibly removed from the hearing.
The plaintiffs commenced an action in the Superior Court. They alleged that the school committee, by holding the grievance hearing in closed session, had failed to comply with the open meeting requirements of G. L. c. 39, § 23B. They asked that the defendant be compelled to disclose publicly the minutes of the grievance hearing and to conform to the provisions of G. L. c. 39, § 23B, at future meetings. *fn5 After a hearing on agreed facts, the Judge ruled that the grievance hearing conducted by the school committee pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement was not subject to the provisions of the open meeting law. The plaintiffs appealed to the Appeals Court from the judgment denying their claim for injunctive relief. We granted the plaintiffs' application for direct appellate review. We affirm the judgment.
As it applies to meetings of municipal school committees, the open meeting law is found in G. L. c. 39, §§ 23A-23C. *fn6 Section 23B establishes the general mandate that all meetings of a governmental body must be open to the public unless otherwise provided by this statute.
The open meeting law is designed to eliminate much of the secrecy surrounding the deliberations and decisions on which public policy is based. Public officials, however, might be unduly hampered in the performance of their duties if all gatherings of members of included governmental bodies must be open to the public. Thus, one feature of the act, the provision for executive sessions, permits closed sessions in certain circumstances. Executive sessions may be held only for the purposes expressly set forth in § 23B, one of which is "to conduct collective bargaining sessions." The governmental body may call an executive session and close the meeting to the public if (a) it has first convened in an open session for which notice has been given, (b) a majority of the members formally votes to go into executive session, (c) the presiding officer announces the purpose for such session, and (d) prior to the closed session, the presiding officer states whether the body will reconvene after the executive session. G. L. c. 39, § 23B.
We need not decide whether grievance hearings pursuant to collective bargaining agreements are to be deemed "meetings" governed by the open meeting law since such hearings can be conducted in closed sessions under G. L. c. 39, § 23B, which authorizes executive sessions "to conduct collective bargaining sessions." Collective bargaining sessions encompass not only the negotiations leading to the agreement, but also the resolution of grievances pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. As the Supreme Court said in United Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 581 (1960): "The processing of disputes through the grievance machinery is actually a vehicle by which meaning and content are given to the collective bargaining agreement . . . . The grievance procedure is, in other words, a part of the continuous collective bargaining process."
Executive sessions of a governmental body subject to the open meeting law must be held in accordance with specific statutory procedures. Contrary to these statutory requirements for executive sessions, the school committee did not convene the hearing in open session for which notice had been given and did not enter into executive session by a recorded majority vote. *fn7 In the context of this case, however, the procedural deficiencies were de minimis. *fn8
We hold that a grievance hearing conducted by the school committee pursuant to a collective bargaining ...